As the first Muslim woman to be appointed to head the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Azizah al-Hibri, a Lebanese-American lawyer and prominent human rights activist, has an uphill battle in front of her.
However, with over 30 years worth of experience working on human rights issues, especially those pertaining to the treatment of Muslim women in the U.S. and abroad, Hibri knows where her priorities lie and how these could help Lebanon overcome some of its worst social injustices.
“The first challenge and the most important one is the lack of knowledge of the Muslim women's rights within their religion,” she told The Daily Star this week after her appointment by U.S. President Barack Obama on June 10.
“A lot of the time, people think they know what their religion is about but they have not really come back to the source and have not looked at it in a studious manner, most people don't have the time,” she said via telephone from her offices at Virginia's, Richmond University, where Hibri teaches law.
Domestic violence, a tradition Hibri rejects as a moral and social wrong, is one of the areas where this misunderstanding is most apparent.
“Civil courts can do a lot, but I have travelled to many Muslim countries and I am of the conviction that first Muslims, both male and female, have to understand and believe that God the All Merciful did not permit violence against women,” said Hibri, who has vowed to look into, and potentially assist, the ongoing civil society campaign in Lebanon, struggling to pass legislation prohibiting domestic violence.
The draft bill, currently undergoing discussion by committee, has come under fire from certain religious authorities who consider it an affront to Islamic custom and has also been criticized by the newly appointed Sports and Youth Minister Faisal Karami, who slammed it for attacking family values.
“Women, as well as men, need to believe that [domestic violence is not allowed] because they need to understand that when they are mistreated, that is not something that has been permitted by God,” said Hibri, speaking to The Daily Star in a personal capacity, rather than as her new post as USCIRF head.
“God is … justice and He is mercy. So the kind of understanding and interpretation of Islamic text and persons who condone violence against women, I believe, are in a great need of review and revisiting,” added Beirut-born Hibri, niece of Sunni politician and ex-Public Works Minister, Khalil al-Hibri and granddaughter of famed Lebanon Scout Movement founder, Toufik al-Hibri.
Justifying her views based on Islamic teaching, many of which are taken from the earliest Islamic texts, Hibri prefers that her widely published research and work speak for itself.
“I have never said the traditional or conservative elements of Islam should be discarded, because we consider ourselves pretty conservative in that when we develop our views, we go back to the very traditional and basic texts,” said Hibri, who is also the founder of U.S.-based civil society group Karamah, working to promote the status of Muslim women worldwide by increasing knowledge of their rights.
“We do not invent something new we simply shed light on what was said.”
Instead, most of the horror stories that have become associated with Islamic practice – such as female genital mutilation – have only been incorporated over the centuries.
“A lot of the positions taken about Islam later have been tainted by tribal customary and political and other factors. If we want to go back to a pristine understanding of what it is really that Islam said about basic issues [we will find] a very gender equitable view,” said Hibri.
According to her research, the true teachings encourage women to work and take an active role in society, pushing those that want to work to do so and, “develop the abilities God gave them.”
The lack of female participation in the new Cabinet, which was announced Monday after almost five months of political wrangling, is therefore seen as a disappointing development.
“[The issue] is not really political, it is about women's rights and leadership in any country and I am very surprised that this Cabinet does not have a woman in it, when previous ones did,” said Hibri. “I think the women's voice is really urgent, especially in Lebanon, where the women's voices tend to be more based on conflict resolution and hopefully mediation and [public] service.
“I am disappointed but I do also understand that the country is going through a very delicate situation so they did what they could do, the best they could do, so I wish everybody success and the country tranquility and peace,” she added.